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High-Definition DVD: Blu-ray or HD-DVD?

by Alan Lofft, (bio), Axiom Audio

We all hate format wars. The remarkable success of the DVD in just eight years testifies to the enormous appeal of a single optical disc format that will play in virtually any DVD player or computer drive anywhere in the world. Recent figures indicate that at least 400 million DVDs are shipped to retailers every three months and that now you can choose from more than 140,000 different titles and movies on DVD.

Likewise, the worldwide acceptance and market success of the Compact Disc (and before it, the LP record) underline the ongoing failure of SACD and DVD-Audio (the two high-resolution multichannel audio disc formats) to attract widespread consumer interest and sales. In fact, more vinyl LP albums are currently sold than DVD-Audio or SACD discs combined, a somewhat startling statistic!
Incompatibility Spells Failure for SACD and DVD-Audio

The failure of SACD and DVD-Audio to achieve any kind of market presence can be blamed on their incompatibly with each other and with most existing DVD players. While there are a few "Universal" DVD players available (some costly, some inexpensive) that play both DVD-Audio and SACD discs, it's too late to capture any kind of mass acceptance. The momentum was lost early on when the Sony SACD camp (Philips and a few others) and the Matsushita DVD-Audio group (Panasonic and many others) refused to combine the best qualities of each format in a compatible format that would prove attractive to a mass audience. Confronted with two technically dazzling and superb-sounding formats that did not include video, and that would not play on their existing DVD players, most consumers simply shrugged and continued to buy DVDs and CDs. After all, the DVD gives you very good video quality-vastly superior to VHS, which it replaced-in addition to excellent 5.1-channel sound in Dolby Digital or dts. And you can even play them in a computer drive.

I outline this history because I worry about the potential failure of a High Definition DVD format if the current parties don't reach an agreement on a single universal standard for a High Definition DVD. At the moment, there are two high-def disc formats being readied for introduction later this year or in early 2006-Blu-ray and HD DVD. And just like SACD and DVD-Audio, each format is utterly incompatible with each other. Worse, each is backed by two different groups of manufacturers and endorsed by different groups of movie studios and content providers. The Blu-ray format is supported by Sony, Philips, JVC, Panasonic, Samsung, Pioneer, Hitachi and HP, whereas HD DVD is backed by Toshiba, Sanyo, and all the members of the DVD Forum. The latter's endorsement augers well for HD DVD because the DVD Forum supervises current DVD standards and represents more than 200 consumer-electronics and entertainment-related companies.

Blu-ray's and HD DVD's Capabilities
In many respects both HD formats have highly similar qualifications. Blu-ray and HD DVD both use new short-wavelength blue lasers, which will focus on and read much tinier pits than the larger red lasers used in your current DVD player. (The pits plus the "land"-the spaces between the pits-represent the digital code or pulses that carry the video and audio data.) When you want to record ultra-sharp full-motion HD video images, it takes far more data to encode the video and audio, a huge amount in fact. What that means is that normally you'd have to make the disc much larger to hold all the HD video content. If you don't make the disc larger then you have to make the pits much smaller, and cram more spirals of pits much closer together onto a disc. Smaller pits require a laser that can read the tiny pits, so both Blu-ray and HD DVD chose a blue laser. But the Blu-ray disc's pits are even smaller than those used on HD DVD, so Blu-ray's storage capacity is greater than HD DVD's.

A single-layer Blu-ray disc will hold 25 gigabytes (GB) with a dual-layer disc carrying 50 GB. By contrast, HD DVD has a maximum of 15 GB (single layer) and 30 GB (dual layer). (Both Blu-ray and HD DVD will also have single- and dual-layer rewritable discs, with storage capabilities similar to their read-only versions.) You can argue that greater capacity is always more attractive, but keep in mind that both of these HD disc formats have relatively huge capacities.

For example, a 30-GB dual-layer HD DVD could hold more than 8 hours (!) of high-definition video, enough for three HD movies or two movies and more "extras" and bonus content than any sane person should ever watch! Blu-ray's 50-GB dual-layer disc holds even more-a 60% advantage over HD DVD. To achieve that enormous capacity, Blu-ray's pits are not only tinier but also the disc's recording layer is much closer to the disc surface. Although the latter aspect is not discussed much, it has the potential to make the Blu-ray disc very sensitive to damage and scratches, which would be a huge drawback. One of the great strengths of current DVDs is that they are extremely rugged and resistant to damage from casual handling. (Have you ever noticed that the scratched and smudged surfaces of most rental DVDs play back perfectly?) The HD DVD, by contrast, would have the same resistance to damage and scratches as current DVDs, which makes it very attractive.

Although HD DVD's potential capacity is significantly less than Blu-ray's staggering 50 GB capability, HD DVD has one large advantage. Replicators (the manufacturers of the actual high-def discs) can economically put HD DVDs into production with only minor modifications to existing DVD pressing machinery. Blu-ray, on the other hand, requires totally new retooling, plus new manufacturing lines and presses, so there is a huge potential capital expense for Blu-ray disc manufacturers.

HD DVD also has one other advantage over Blu-ray. A hybrid HD DVD is possible, with a regular DVD movie version on one side of the disc and the High-Def version on the flip side, a feature that retailers and consumers would applaud. And Dolby Digital Plus has been selected as the mandatory audio standard for HD-DVD and future HD broadcast applications. Dolby Digital Plus has the capability of 7.1 discrete audio channels (and more). It also runs at a higher bit rate than current Dolby Digital.

Different Studios Back Two Formats
Sony developed Blu-ray, so naturally the Sony-owned studios (Sony Pictures, Disney, MGM and Columbia TriStar) are backing the Blu-ray format. But Toshiba's HD DVD has the backing of Warner Brothers as well as HBO, Paramount, New Line, and Universal. And if we look back in history, it was the leadership of Toshiba and Warner Brothers that settled the behind-the-scenes format disagreements that existed before the adoption of our existing DVD standard. (Would that common sense will prevail later this year before we are frustrated by two mutually incompatible HD disc formats!)

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The only slight assurance for consumers is that at least Blu-ray and HD DVD will be backwards compatible with existing DVDs, which means that no matter which high-def disc format wins out, you'll still be able to play your existing DVD collection (with standard DVD quality) on a new high-definition DVD player. (But you wouldn't be able to play an HD DVD or Blu-ray disc in your current DVD player.)

Hollywood Wants One Standard
It's generally conceded that Hollywood studios do not want a format war. At this writing (early June), encouraging news has surfaced. The two warring camps have agreed to talks aimed toward establishing a universal HD optical disc standard that combines the best features of Blu-ray and HD DVD.

One other unpredictable factor has also surfaced. If any lingering dithering occurs over combining the two HD disc formats into a single standard, crucial momentum may be lost. Consumers may simply weary of the battle and continue to embrace the Standard Definition DVD. After all, the existing DVD is really very, very good and though it's not High Definition, the differences in video quality between a well-mastered movie on a current DVD and an HD broadcast of the same movie are, well, not so dramatic, nothing like as impressive as the original DVD image represented over VHS when the DVD standard debuted. In comparative terms, VHS video is awful whereas DVD images are terrific. I still remember staring at the first demos of DVD at a Toshiba press event in 1995. Although it now seems routine, back then I couldn't believe just how beautiful DVD images looked relative to the wretched VHS picture, or even compared to the technically compromised laserdisc. Of course an HD-mastered movie broadcast in HD can look stunning and any video aficionado (which likely includes just about everyone reading this newsletter) wants it accessible on disc. Nevertheless, there is a huge mainstream population who may not be so dazzled by the prospect of having to choose between two incompatible HD disc formats when the visible improvements aren't as blatant as DVD was over VHS.

If no resolution of the format war is reached, consumers may simply say, forget it. My current DVDs are good enough!

But I'm optimistic about an eventual resolution of the HD DVD/Blu-ray conflict. The sales of HDTV sets are rapidly growing, and as increasing numbers of viewers marvel at true HD images with sports, nature shows, series dramas and HD movie broadcasts, the pressure on the Blu-ray and HD DVD camps to settle the quarrel will only increase. The potential profits of HD programs on a high-def DVD are simply too great to squander over petty format squabbles.

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